Friday, October 17, 2008

Mood-Led Thinking

Too often, we think that we've thought objectively about a situation and then, because of the conclusion we reach, our emotions are either positive or negative.

It's not obvious that this is the direction that causation flows.

When you are in a negative space, when you are feeling bad, you are likely to reach conclusions that justify this feeling. Emotions often lead our thinking to conclusions that sustain them.

It might be worth changing your mood before thinking about big and important decisions.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Doomed New Year's Resolutions

“Men who have discovered the limits of arrogance make better company: You notice more when you're not running around imposing your will on everything.”
- Virginia Vitzthum

Change is a difficult thing but every year, millions of Americans purpose to do just that. Maybe I'm just so old that I've accepted who I am and have difficulty imagining myself as someone different, but it seems like this industry of New Year's resolutions is one based on well intentioned delusion.

The other day, I was talking to what seemed to be a darling woman. She said that she was going to get more organized for the new year and was even able to list out all the benefits of doing just that. "So why aren't you more organized already," I asked. My own suspicion is that she has made such resolutions before but finds herself, once again, resolving anew to be who she is not. Such an endeavor seems like such a waste of energy when she could, instead, build on what everyone else sees as unique - or at least rare - strengths. New Year's Resolutions can too easily be attempts to be like someone we admire rather than self actualize.

According to First Break All the Rules, what distinguishes the really extraordinary managers from those who are merely very good or even mediocre is how they deal with shortcomings. The motto of the extraordinary managers in regards to their employees seems to be, "Don't try to put in what was left out. Instead, draw out what was left in. That's hard enough." In other words, we all arrive at life with missing pieces. We can spend our energy and ambition trying to address this obvious and sometimes distressing lack, but it's not clear that it'll ever make much difference. Or, we can acknowledge what we actually brought to the party and find a way to make that work. It wasn't that Einstein failed to work hard, he just (as far as I know) didn't spend much effort trying to be a world class dancer. It takes a great deal of effort just to be good at what we're good at.

If you have to make a New Year's resolution (and given it's already 11 January you probably don't), make a resolution to enhance or strengthen what you already know to be a positive part of you. Save the scary and often unrewarding work of trying low probability goals for experiments when you are already feeling confident and are less likely to make failure mean too much.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Argument Against Living Your Life Fully

“The purpose of life is to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
- Kurt Vonnegut

We've embraced the notion of living a full life. Well, at least in public. I'm working 24-7, we brag to anyone who will listen. And of course, this is a lie and that is just one of the things wrong with the whole notion of living life fully.

Rather than 24-7, it might make more sense to live life from peak to peak. This suggests a life punctuated by bouts of love making rather than hours and hours of hand holding, or a mad sprint in a race of seconds rather than a stroll that goes on and on and on for hours. Peaks are not only wonderful - they demand recovery time that looks suspiciously slack jawed and glazed eyed.

And the more we scale these peaks, the more readily we can repeat the trick of finding those peak moments that distort time, cause us to lose self consciousness, and let only the task at hand command our attention, finding our perfect balance between challenge and skill. It is through these peak experiences that we are actualized. And it is from these peak experiences that we need to recover.

For one thing, post-peak order is the opposite of post-traumatic disorder. Peak experiences when we are in flow are hard to attain and impossible to maintain, but once we've had them, we feel more alive, more sure about our life's direction and purpose. Peak experiences lend clarity to life that would be lacking in an "every day is the same" kind of life.

The creative cycle includes peak moments and time that seems, on the surface, wildly unproductive. Aha! moments are preceded by incubation (which is preceded by immersion in a topic and problem set). The Aha! is a peak moment when things click to take shape, but incubation looks about as productive as a chicken sitting on eggs. And yet without this incubation time, its rare that anything pops out of the "ain't there" ether into the plane of existence, that miracle of creativity.

Lest the reader think that I'm just making all this up, offering this odd notion that one's life is best spent in a state other than flat-line exertion, allow me to quote from Warren Buffet, who, last I heard, is worth about $35 billion, a net worth that usually suffices as an attention-getting device in this world.

Think of yourself as you go through life as standing at the plate and people throwing you pitches. It is a very special baseball game. There is no one calling the balls and strikes and you can stand there forever. You have got all these people in the bleachers saying, "Hey, swing you bum!" on every second pitch. You just have to learn to ignore them and when a pitch comes along and it is straight but it is a little high inside, you let it pass. Another one comes along and it is a little low outside. Every once in a while a pitch comes along that looks like the sweetest, juiciest, fattest pitch you are ever going to see. And when it does, you swing from your heels on it. You come out of your shoes on it. That is how you go through life. And you are only going to get about ten swings like that, maybe five swings. That is what you wait for. Too many people go through life batting at every other pitch. So just wait for your opportunities and when they come you swing from your heels.

Don't live your life fully. Don't swing at every pitch so that you're exhausted when that juicy pitch finally comes across the plate. Instead, go from peak to peak and shamelessly savor the valleys in between.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Voice in Your Head

From Overheard in New York
Female #1: You know when you think something and then a voice in your head is like, 'Yeah, yeah, say that out loud! That would be a good thing to say!' and then you do it and you're like, 'Well, that was a mistake...'?
Female #2: Yeah.
Female #1: Yeah, I think I just did that.

The biggest mistake we continually make is simply this: we confuse the narrator with the event. Specifically, we confuse the voice in our head with reality. "He is such a dweeb," the voice says, and we file that commentary away as a fact. "I can't do that," we tell ourselves, and, again, file that away as a fact.

Facts are hard to get to. It took mankind about 10,000 years before it arrived at the empirical method, at science. Not all people are scientists and very few of us seem capable of seeing the facts about ourselves. The first step towards that may be as simple (and as hard) as merely acknowledging that your internal narration is not the same thing as reality.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Painful Experiences

Certain qualities seem to be universally admired. Selflessness. Patience. A positive spirit.

Yet it seems that many of the virtues that most of us want come from experiences that most of us shirk. The painful loss of a business or even a child. Or even the hunger pains and muscle ache required to develop a chiseled physique.

It is worth remembering when you are going through a difficult experience that you may well gain a characteristic or two that you've always so admired in others. This very hope may be the hope that you need to get through this experience.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Heroes & Individuals

"I asked myself 'What is the myth you are living?' and found that I did not know. So ... I took it upon myself to get to know 'my' myth and I regarded this as the task of tasks ... I simply had to know what unconscious or preconscious myth was forming me."
- C.J. Jung

Charles Tart makes the point that a hypnotist, in a matter of minutes, can program you to do things. How much more powerfully can society program you during the course of your life?

The purported purpose of life until now has been to be a good Christian, a good citizen, a good employee. That is, purpose has been given to the individual by social institutions.

The genuine individual distances himself from these institutions to do the hard work of defining herself with a degree of autonomy from them. The hero comes back from this shape-shifting exercise and transforms these institutions. It's hard work - and nobody's got to do it.

Thursday, May 3, 2007


• Age 22: Lost job
• Age 23: Defeated for state legislature
• Age 24: Failed in business
• Age 27: Nervous breakdown
• Age 34: Ran for congress and defeated
• Age 39: Defeated again
• Age 46: Ran for senate and defeated
• Age 47: Defeated for nomination for vice president
• Age 50: Defeated again for senate
• Age 51: Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the U.S.

The difference between beiong a success or failure may be determined by something as simple as when you stop.